Christians and Muslims standing together
‘WILL this make the news?” That’s what a Muslim friend asked me two months ago after Muslims in Egypt formed human shields outside churches on Christmas Eve. They did it to protect Christians in that country from terror attacks, like the bombing in Alexandria on Jan. 1.
As it turns out, it did make the news at some media outlets. You had to look hard to find it, though. The only mention in Winnipeg media, it seems, was in a column by Tom Ford in this newspaper. He added that the incident “was little reported.”
A little over a month later, Christians in that country reciprocated by joining hands to form a protective cordon around Muslims as they knelt for Friday prayers in Tahir Square. Two days later, Muslims returned the favour, surrounding Christians in the square as they celebrated mass.
As with the story of Muslims protecting Christians, Christians protecting Muslims didn’t get much media attention.
Which is strange, considering how one of the major storylines since 9/11 is increasing tension between Muslims and the so-called Christian West. You’d think the media would be all over any story showing people from the two groups working together. Apparently, that’s not the case.
In fact, the role of religion as a whole in the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries seems to merit just a glance. But just as with the fall of another tyrannical political system — East Germany — religion seems to playing an important part.
In the case of East Germany, it was the church that provided “the only free space,” says Christian Fuhrer, pastor of St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in Leipzig.
“Everything that could not be discussed in public could be discussed in church, and in this way the church represented a unique spiritual and physical space in which people were free,” he says.
In the early 1980s, Fuhrer began holding weekly prayers for peace. Attendance was sparse at first, but grew as the as the Soviet Union began opening to the West.
The prayer service “was something very special,” he says. “Here a critical mass grew under the roof of the church — young people, Christians and non-Christians.”
In October 1989, when the government began to crack down on protest, attendance at the prayer meetings swelled. One night, after it finished, 70,000 people marched through the city as armed soldiers looked on — doing nothing. A month later, the wall between East and West Berlin came down.
“If any event ever merited the description of ‘miracle’ that was it,” Fuhrer says. “A revolution that succeeded, a revolution that grew out of the church.”
A prayer meeting in a church didn’t bring down the East German government. But it gave opponents of the regime a place to express their frustration, and their hopes for change. The same thing appears to have occurred in the Middle East. Just like in East Germany, religious gatherings in those countries were among the few places where people could gather to express their frustration with their governments.
“Most of these repressive governments squashed any kind of political organization,” says Kathy Hawk, a Middle East expert at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “It was only through the mosques that people could kind of coalesce.”
An added religious dimension to the story in Egypt is how the attack against Christians in Alexandria — the same one that prompted Muslims to protect Christians attending church later that month — might have provided one spark that helped lead to the regime’s fall.
According to Cardinal Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, security forces in that country often used attacks on Christians by radical Muslims as a pretext to clamp down on opposition movements.
“This has given weight to the hypothesis, in circulation particularly among Christians, that the minister of the interior had planned the massacre of Alexandria to justify a strengthening of police controls,” he is quoted as saying in the National Catholic Reporter.
If that’s the case, it backfired spectacularly — rather than cowing the populace, it sparked the opposite reaction, and united Christians and Muslims against the regime.
Where all of this is going, and what role religion will play in Egypt’s future, or the future of the other Middle Eastern countries, is anyone’s guess. Only the most Pollyanish would suggest it is the dawn of a new day of peace and sunshine between Christians and Muslims. There is potential danger from radical religious movements. There will be tough times ahead, with numerous advances and setbacks.
As people of faith in this country, one thing we can do is pray for people in the Middle East. Psalm 122: 6-8 says: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you.”
To that I would add: Let’s also pray that peace will come to Cairo, Tripoli, Tunis, Tehran and every other major Middle Eastern city and country during these exciting, but uncertain, times.